Chief William A. Vernon
Popeye in the Desert
By Chief William A. Vernon, U.S. Navy Seabee Retired
In July 1990, I was an equipment mechanic platoon commander for a Naval Mobile Construction Battalion that was deployed and working in Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. Iraq invaded Kuwait and then I was redeployed with my battalion as an Air Detachment Platoon Commander in charge of 76 personnel as a first response team to build Marine camps and runways. I, along with the personnel that worked with me, were feeling some very high anxieties, being that this was actually the first “REAL WORLD” deployment that we all were about to experience. Being young, healthy, energetic, full of vitality all of us were also very excited! A real adrenalin rush! All of us were about to experience WAR! We then all received our required shots i.e., anthrax, typhoid, malaria pills, anti-nerve agent horse pills, and whatever else the military thought we needed to keep healthy.
After about a 36-hour military airlift, we started our decent into Saudi Arabia. Wow, at the start of the decent we could actually feel the thermometer rising! We finally landed in Saudi Arabia, the aircraft rear hatches opened, and we got blasted by the reality of the 135-degree (Fahrenheit) weather with 90% humidity. We were aware of the heat because we were told about it, and we had prepared ourselves for it by exercising and performing five-mile marches with full chemical biological radiological (CBR) gear and gas masks in the high heat of Puerto Rico to help us get acclimated. Thank God someone had the foresight to have us prepare this way and also got us used to drinking a lot of water to stay hydrated.
We exited the aircraft with our loaded weapons because we didn’t really know what to expect and felt a lot of anxiety at that time. We were soon put at ease with a forward welcoming party giving us the right details and our tasking. We then got our marching orders to convoy our vehicles and personnel (vehicles were on the aircraft with us) to another site approximately 40 kilometers north.
We arrived at a location known as King Aziz soccer stadium approximately two kilometers west of the Gulf of Oman. We camped out on the bleachers for a week while we awaited supplies to build our camp.
A week went by and we received our supplies and started building our camp. The camp consisted of tents and milvan steel boxes that we used for shops and cover from the intense sun. And yes, we finally got a shower tent set up.
Construction of the runways and a tent city commenced immediately to support the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force. (Reality is the SEABEEs are really the first in, because everyone else needs their comforts!)
After we finally got close to being settled and getting into our working routines, we started finding out peculiar things about the environment. Every morning when we woke up there was a red haze that rose to about neck level. It didn’t seem too dangerous, and our eyes weren’t burning, but it was a little laborious to breathe. By about 10:00 a.m. the haze was gone. Being the inquisitive guy I am, I asked my medical personnel about the haze, and was told, “It’s due to all the oil refineries here in Saudi.”
The next peculiar thing we notice (and all thought was pretty cool), was that you could actually scoop up some sand in your hand and light it on fire with a cigarette lighter. You had to be careful though, because the very light blue flame could still burn you. Even though it was kind of a cool gimmick to show people at night, it started me thinking … “Hmm… is this country so oil rich that the gases are emitting through the ground? Great, I might as well start getting used to sucking on a gas pipe. Hmm, have to build a 100 man bunker with this sand. Maybe I should wear my gas mask when filling up a thousand sandbags every night. Oh well, I’m not dead yet.”
We finally got our vehicle repair tent and shop set up to do repairs and maintenance on the construction equipment. We had to be careful not to leave our wrenches in the sun, on a fender or something; picking them up meant getting second-degree burns on your hands. After changing the engine oil, we collected the used oil “properly” in 55-gallon drums so we could bring it to a collection site for proper disposal. When the Saudi commander got mad, thinking we were stealing his oil, we’re ordered to pour it back on the ground. I was opposed to this, but I lost the argument. We then decided to pour the used oil in an asphalt distributor truck and spray the roads and sand dunes with it to hold down the dust and sand during the wind storms.
After a month went by, the camps were completed for our Marines and the runway for the Harriers and helicopters was about 75% complete. At the time, Saddam Hussein was threatening us and Israel with SCUD missiles. The Marines began filtering into camp. About time, since we all thought it would be really nice to have them protecting us with all these threats from Saddam.
A month and a half into my deployment, we had gotten a lot of things done.. By then, a lot of Marines had arrived. My guys and I were assigned a task to help the Marines make up some NAPALM bombs. I had never done this before and thought it was pretty cool. “What, Marine, you need some help with the ammo crates? Sure we’ll help. What kind of ammo is this?” Marine replies, “EXPENDED URANIUM. Good hard hitting ammo. Goes through armor like a hot knife through butter.” I made a kind of amused reply. “I’m not going to be glowing tonight, am I?” “Naturally,” he replied. “It’s safe. It’s expended, stupid!”
Towards the end of Operation Desert Storm when we lit up the Iraqi Army leaving Kuwait on the “Highway of Death,” myself and others went to check out the destruction. I believe a lot of their weapons and vehicles were hit with this type of ordnance (expended uranium).
As another hard day came to a close, I noted there was nothing like a “cold” 96-degree shower after a 135-degree day. I could finally go to sleep in my birthday suit on my 105-degree cot…. CRAP! WTF! Is that? “QUICK!! GET TO THE BUNKER!! PUT ON OUR BIOCHEM GEAR!! PUT ON YOUR GAS MASK!! GET YOUR WEAPON!! YOU’RE RUNNIN’ OUTTA TIME! YA GOT 12 SECONDS!!”
“That BASTARD SADDAM shot off a SCUD! GET IN THE BUNKER!! VERNON! PUT ON YOUR PANTS!!”
Two hours passed sitting in this hot smelly bunker, in my hot CBR gear singing KUM-BYE-AH through our gasmasks. Turns out beach line Patriot missiles took out the SCUD. We were told to stay in our CBR gear until we knew that the SCUD was not filled with biochemical weapons.
This type of occurrence started happening almost on a daily basis, either during the hot work day, or when we were sound asleep at night. This fearful adrenaline rush kind of made me feel like Popeye. I felt as though I had superhuman strength in an instant, just like when Popeye squeezed the can of spinach in his mouth and then all of the sudden things started happening. His muscles got bigger and he became powerful and focused. My muscles and my mind gave me that same feeling of invincibility. These type of rushes occurred often throughout my tour in Desert Shied/Desert Storm. I didn’t have another name for this sensation and came to refer to it as my self-proclaimed “POPEYE SYNDROME.” To me, it was an appropriate way to describe the feeling that occurred during times of overwhelming stress.
In December of 1990, my unit left Saudi Arabia, but I stayed to help another unit that needed my mechanical experience closer to the Kuwati border. That’s a whole other story, with more extreme-type POPEYE syndrome scenarios. The unit that replaced my original unit was a Reserve Naval Construction Battalion made up of SEABEE Naval Reservists, weekend warriors. The majority of the personnel in this unit were older gentlemen that were called in for duty, from their normal civilian life and jobs. They weren’t in very good physical shape, and did not have the time to acclimate to the environment. They were often sick and I felt sorry for them.
After my experiences in the Gulf War, my life did not feel the same to me. As far as my mental state, I found myself feeling depressed, insignificant, not feeling excited or motivated. I had unexplained digestive problems, sleeping problems, and I was not able to handle any stress well. I also experienced erectile dysfunction. I had skin problems that were treated with topical steroids. When I retired, I was diagnosed with Gulf War syndrome by the Veterans Administration. The VA and my wife have been a big help in dealing with myself.
In general, I believe the environment, exposure to heavy metals, being used as a sort-of lab rat, and the forced reoccurrences of POPEYE SYNDROME led to what is now referred to as “my” Gulf War Syndrome.
January 30, 2010
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